Crafting a Musical About The Shaggs, an Artless Trio

By Robert Simonson
08 Jun 2011

Joy Gregory, John Langs (standing) and Gunnar Madsen
Joy Gregory, John Langs (standing) and Gunnar Madsen
Photo by Joan Marcus

A 1960s sibling pop group, hailed as outsider artists, is the subject of a new Off-Broadway musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. The show's creators discuss their work.

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"I have tapes of myself starting out," said the composer Gunnar Madsen. "I think any musician has. They should never be released."

True enough. But if Madsen had had a father like Austin Wiggin, perhaps we would have heard those tapes. Austin was the father of three New Hampshire daughters — Dot, Helen and Betty — whom he hectored into forming a rock band. The curious result was the 1960s oddity known as The Shaggs, which put out a single album titled, portentously, "Philosophy of the World." Made up of 12 tracks of discordant, tuneless, hectic strangeness, it sank like a stone. But the group, and the album, have had an odd afterlife. In 1980, at the urging of Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino, of the band NRBQ, it was rereleased on the Rounder Records label. Rolling Stone magazine, perversely fascinated, called it the comeback of the year. Since then, the Shaggs have been the three-piece train wreck from which the music industry can't seem to avert their gaze. The band has been praised as a prime example of "outsider music" and primitive art by the likes of Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain and music critic Lester Bangs. In 1999, RCA released the album and gave the Shaggs even wider exposure. Lengthy profiles of the Wiggin family's odd achievement were published in the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.



That's when playwright Joy Gregory first became aware of The Shaggs. The group is the subject of a musical, also called The Shaggs, written by Gregory, Madsen and John Langs, now playing at Playwrights Horizons.

A few weeks after reading the Wall Street Journal and New Yorker articles, Gregory was listening to the radio when a bizarre racket began to emanate from the speaker. "The Journal article started with a lot of people trying to describe the music," she said. "Based on those descriptions, I knew what I was listening to." It was The Shaggs, three teenage girls who knew next to nothing about how to play the two guitars and drum kit that their father had given them.

 

Jamey Hood and Peter Friedman in The Shaggs.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It sounds really crazy," said Gregory. "Most people's first reaction is laughter. It sounds so off. At the same time, what struck me was the haunted quality of the vocals." She mentioned a song called "My Pal Foot Foot," an ode to the Wiggins' pet cat. "That vocal sounds hushed, like she was trying to explain something that she didn't have proper tools to express," she said. "There was a yearning in it. This almost affectless voice affected me."

Madsen had a similar reaction. He had been aware of "Philosophy" since 1980, but didn't listen to it until Gregory — whom he met at a 1999 playwright-composer workshop — suggested the story of The Shaggs might make a good musical.

"There's just a very deep sadness" in the music, he said. He admitted that he probably sensed that sorrow partly because he'd read the articles about the Wiggin family beforehand. Austin Wiggin was a strong disciplinarian obsessed with his mother's prediction that his daughters would become a popular music act. To make the prophecy come true, he took his children out of school so that they might spend every day practicing. He then secured them a weekly gig at the local town hall, and a contract with a tiny local record label. "It was forced out of these people," said Madsen. "They didn't have a burning desire to make this music. It was almost concentration-camp music, squeezed out of people."

 Continued...